Cruise Or Lose
INTRO > Jim Gaunt headed to the Airush dealer meeting at Sotavento, Fuerteventura, where he took part in a testing session. To him it was a unique experience, but to the Airush design team it was just another day pushing the boundaires.
Airush's design boundaries seem pretty extreme at first glance over their 2010 product brochure ? it's big! But 'extreme' is exactly the opposite of what they are trying to achieve with certain projects, like the Sector 60.
Svein Rasmussen started Airush after a long history in windsurfing and has watched both sports evolve and diversify. He's an avid believer in simplifying kiteboarding; making it more accessible to everyone and in developing gear that makes the sport possible in more places. He believes in a future of freeriding.
I was lucky enough to be privy to an impromptu and exciting conversation between him and his right hand man, Airush board developer and brand manager, Clinton Filen, when they were discussing the benefits that kiting with short lines on their new wide-style board would bring to the sport. I got the impression that Svein wakes up in the night with new ideas and can't wait to impart them to his team such was the gusto he was gesturing with.The next morning we were out in between seven and 12 knots, powered on a 13 metre and cruising up and down the coast on six metre lines.
I wanted to find out where things would go from there.
Having windsurfed since '76, competing in national and international events, including ten years on the world tour and an appearance at the Olympics, Svein Rasmussen really has been there and done that. He started his windsurfing brand, Starboard, in 1994, six years prior to launching Airush Kiteboarding. I talked to him about how much kitesurfing can learn from windsurfing...
'In the early days kiteboarding mirrored windsurfing a lot. We should have seen things coming ? we'd lived through windsurfing, so knew the experiences windsurfing had, good and bad ? but very quickly kiteboarding fell into the same trap.
'The problem was that the focus was always on producing equipment that was too small for most people most of the time. To ride such small boards meant you had to have a very powerful kite, which made it really difficult to stay upwind and to get out regularly. When we started making equipment I felt that kiteboarding should be a sport that could be enjoyed in lighter conditions ? that it should almost be a touring sport where it's very easy to cruise along on your own wherever you want to go.
Whatever sport you're trying to grow, it's important to make sure that people can enjoy it often without having to travel far. What happened really quickly was that a freestyle theme took over. It became a sport dominated by people with a lot of motivation and passion with an extreme streak that made them want to push the boundaries of what the body and mind could really endure. There were a lot of people wanting to become the best and show off.
'The extreme moves are absolutely fantastic, but they only appeal to a tiny percentage of the world's population. Kiteboarding needs to become a sport that lots of people can see themselves doing. The solution therefore is to head towards exactly the opposite ? namely a small, powerful kite and a bigger board, making it easier to actually cruise around. Finally we are now seeing glimpses of that future. We are doing exactly the same thing in windsurfing; making bigger boards and smaller sails so that more people can participate.
The long 11 and 12 feet SUP boards are going to be the new windsurfing boards. We were riding similar shapes 40 years ago, but they are now coming back. Fortunately kiteboarding is evolving quicker so we will now see boards 60-70cm wide becoming very much the mainstream just three or four years from now. Ten years ago people were laughing at the windsurfing board widths we were experimenting with, but they are now the best-selling board sizes in the world. You have to go to extremes to find out what is possible and then you have to come back to apply things to acceptable present-day designs. As a company we've often been criticised for going too far, but in that way we are driving the market.
'The idea of 'performance' can be looked at in different ways. Some people will say that performance is about getting on the water more often in different locations.
Others will say that it's all about getting on the plane quickly and staying upwind easily rather than be bogging around. Then you come onto looking at the ability to go from an upwind tack to more of a broad reach which requires a completely different type of performance ? you need versatility. We really have to look at all these things and come up with products that will allow people to go wherever they want, not just backwards and forwards. Certainly in the air a smaller board can be turned around much easier, but with a bigger board you should be able to get more height. In windsurfing, a wider board goes higher, so why not in kiteboarding? Perhaps you lose some manoeuvrability with a bigger board, but you gain a lot of performance in other areas.
"I think there's a lot that windsurfing can learn from kiteboarding, too. They are two different sports and it will always be like this. When kiteboarding came along windsurfing really had to start to think, because suddenly there was this sport that was much cooler, looked much better and was far more visible on the beach. The moves were absolutely fascinating, so windsurfing had to try to compete and, to a certain extent, kiteboarding lifted windsurfing, which was very good.
'Kiteboarding has started to diversify. The past four years have seen a big switch to focussing on waves; it took some time but that is really coming into play now. Racing is also becoming more popular and, in many respects, kiteboarding will overtake windsurfing because there is just more motivation in that sport and industry now. It's still a young sport and the motivation is still strong, making it easy to get things happening. We need to make sure that continues, but there will be a day where kiteboarding declines. We don't know whether it will be three or ten years from now, but at the moment it's really important that everybody goes out and markets the sport better. Maybe some new action sport will become more popular and attractive than kiteboarding. That will be the time the people behind the sport will need to do all the promotional work they can to keep attracting people.
'For this reason we invited all our shop keepers to this meeting rather than just distributors. It's quite amazing to see what an impact that has had. It's man-toman this week. Fifteen years ago people were selling a lot of windsurfing gear when the sport was at the top, and when it declined they lost motivation to go out and do all the things they did in the beginning. Shop keepers need to be very active in their market, running demos and putting on events, and this week filled with 'concepts of motivation' has been very good.
'It's very interesting to watch the two sports side by side.'
THE SECTOR 60
The dimensions of the Sector 60 are big at 173 x 60 centimetres with two 22 and two 18 centimetre fins for good early drive, reflecting the progressive freeride development that is just one of the philosophies that Airush embrace. (In actual fact there isn't a company I can think of with more design focuses right now! Airush's 2010 kite line includes the DNA school kite, the Generator ? a dedicated C kite developed with Gisela Pulido and Tom Hebert, the Vapor 3 ? an in-between freestyle/freeride hybrid kite, as well as the newly launched Lithium delta and Varial SLE kites and the Crest snowkite. Add to that three ranges of twintips, a brace of surfboard ranges, a dedicated race board, a skimboard and the Sector 60 and you have an incredibly extensive line-up that could keep pretty much everyone grinning cheek-to-cheek.)
Clinton Filen is the Sector 60 creator, a board that was developed off the back of his findings through developing surf shapes...
'It started with what we're doing on surfboards and obviously what we're doing with race development ? trying to combine the real efficiency of race products with some of the ease-of-use of boards in other ranges. We started getting a lot of people using the Chop Top surfboards on flat water and saying how good they were. They weren't designed for that so we decided to start combining some of those ideas and to really push the light wind window. We've been developing boards that are another five or six inches wider and we have prototypes over 70cm wide. We've had to come back to something that's a little more controllable all-round, though.
'The challenge with the Sector 60 was to build something wide that was still fun. A windsurfer uses a much smaller rig than we use kites. They are incredibly efficient, but a lot of it is down to their boards having more fin and less rocker for example. Kite race boards are very efficient but they're hard work to ride. Going off the wind they're scary, and going upwind they are challenging. It's not the kind of product a guy walking into a store will just buy. The Sector is really accessible and makes kiting in seven knots very realistic with a 13 metre kite, as we do with the Lithium Light Wind 13 metre.
'Research we carried out on our existing customers revealed that 25% of people plan to buy a directional board next. We've always focussed on developing a strong and diverse surf line, so for us it's great that the trend is really going that way, but I think it also highlights that people are starting to look for something with a more freeride nature. I'm sure there's a wide body revolution with light wind riding at the moment and we haven't really pushed on with that area yet. It's started in racing, but that's taken a long time, and in surf people haven't really been pushing the light wind surf side.
'There are challenges with working for performance in light airs, such as changing fin configurations, and we need to come up with something that really keeps your drive up. Personally, I really enjoy onshore surf, and kiting has really opened up those sort of conditions and given me a huge amount of satisfaction. Surfing is just terrible in those conditions, but now, all of a sudden, you can have a bit of power and do all kinds of things. Obviously it's much better with a smaller kite, which means using a bigger board...
'From a design side I believe in evolution and what we call making significant breakthroughs and sometimes even random leaps, so at the same time as you make a rational design process it's also important to experiment, like saying, 'What happens if we put he kite on six metre lines?' But then not just leaving it at that but seeing how we could engineer the product to deal with that and work out the limitations of everything from there. It's really important as designers to look forward, to try and predict where the sport will be in ten years and work out how we can be the first to get there. There are obviously always going to be a few different realities, but you can always consider those.
'I'm dying to see the evolution of the sport. This industry and market can be very random, very fashion-orientated and people buy products that aren't really the best for them. Image seems to be everything. Then I come here, stand on the beach and watch a German woman shouting at her husband, telling him to not hook his line and I just think what is going on with this sport? And then I think that's great! It's great that we are all-encompassing, that we've dragged that person away from his city and his conservative life and that he actually wants to go out there, do something and feel alive.'
Mark 'Patto' Pattison is the Airush kite designer whose job it is to maintain the status quo of constant development at Airush. It was along with this typically unpretentious Aussie lad and ever-kite-keen Jo Ciastula that we experimented with this big board short line combo.
It was surreal, but not too difficult to get to grips with, until we got down to six metres. The power band in the wind window just became so small. The kite was either up above your head or straight down in front of you in the power zone. There was very little margin for error. Carving was interesting too. Usually you start to move the kite around the window and follow it. With such short lines there's just nowhere for the kite to go! The technique evolves into more of an initiation of the turn and then the movement of the kite. Strange, but not impossible as the board is so floaty.
Personally I felt happy around the nine metre line length mark and the sense of increased safety and of having much less of an impact on other beach users was incredible. If the kite goes down you have so much more influence over its movements in the water, there's no hint of line tangle as there's no slack and the kite just pops back up. Sotavento suddenly opened up. Riding at angles to the wind I hadn't been able to manage previously that week on twin-tips, I ventured off to explore the town upwind. I've kited here a few times before but this was a perspective I hadn't had of the place. It was too early for the wind to be up enough for the masses, and the water was still stunningly calm as the few knots of wind failed to disturb the surface too much. This was utterly relaxed kiting; a little foot movement here and a little change in pressure there to make sure the board was trimmed properly and working with the kite and not against it kept me amused.
Another interesting point of note is that using such short lines means that those people who've never seen kiting before and stand in the wrong place when you're trying to launch feel much more at ease with standing even closer! It does make it easier to communicate with them though without waving your arms like a lunatic in their direction.
Here are Patto's thoughts:
'I believe kiting should be made idiot-proof. There shouldn't be any hassles. Freestyle guys are never going to get that, but they're not the target market here. They have specific kites. They want their kite to be faster and maybe a bit unstable at times for certain things, but there's a huge freeride market that needs things to be made easy.
'Svein and Clinton are always trying to make something new and exceptional and they've done a lot of stuff with freeride boards lately. It really makes you think about new things instead of going on one track. We had a guy go out on the Sector and the Lithium Light Wind yesterday and he was just cruising, riding up and down the coast with his waterproof camera around his neck and taking snapshots the whole time he was riding. It really makes you think how easy we can make this sport.
'If we can develop things so that we can get a kite on short lines to perform as well in the future as a kite does on long lines now it would be unbelievable. It's so much safer having a kite on ten metre lines ? you can set up your gear in a much smaller space, and for crowded areas would really ease things up. You've also got much more control over the kite for things like relaunching because you're so much closer to it. The problem so far comes down to your bar size ratio compared to the wingspan of your kite. If that becomes too low, then when the kite gets too powered up it's going to try and close itself.
'Ideally, a kite will fly best with the front lines staying separate all the way to the bar because a 'Y' set-up slightly pulls the front of the wing-tips together. If you had the single line going most of the way up from the bar before it split into two, then that would drastically pull the front of the wing-tips together causing the kite to fold. With our 2010 set-up we have 26 metre lines, which have only 4.14 metres of single line at the bottom of the front lines. Over this length it is hardly noticeable that the lines pull the front of the wing-tips together. However, when we reduced the lines all the way down to six metres we were forced to remove the single section of front line, otherwise we would have had four metres of single line and two metres of front line, so the kite would have folded instantly.
'Another main concern is the size of the wind window. On standard 25 or 26 metre lines you have a certain sized window with a fairly gradual power band throughout so you can fly the kite to the edge of the window and steadily swoop it through to create some power.get onto the board becomes really short. The distance between zero power and full power isreally small; all or nothing. The kite is either in the power zone in front of you or above your head with no power.
The Lithium handles it letter than any other kite we've tried because it's got a lot of wind range anyway and you can control it by just sheeting in and out on the bar for power. You don't need to fly it around the window to generate pull, which isn't possible on such short lines, but it's something we have to work on.
'Light wind kiting is always going to be different from windsurfing because we need a certain amount of wind to keep the kite in the sky, whereas windsurfers can hold their rig up in no wind. More places in the world have light wind than strong winds, so if we can get equipment to work really well there then we'llreally be onto something.'
The Airush 'Brain' control bar is a neat concept. Adjustable from 55 ? 45cm in length, Airush have managed to go from making 28 control bars for their range last year, to just six this year. Various connection points on the lines at three, six and nine metres mean you can experiment with various line lengths, allowing you to fly 9, 17, 20, 23 and 26 metre lengths.
Cruise Or Lose appeared in Kiteworld issue #42.
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